After losing three nominating contests to Rick Santorum earlier in the week – Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado – Romney could claim (or perhaps reclaim) front-runner status even though none of the four state events were particularly relevant in the delegate count. And Maine is especially odd in that some precincts could keep on caucusing through February.
But the headlines will read a win for Romney – 39 percent for him and 36 percent for Ron Paul. Neither Rick Santorum, winner of the week’s earlier three contests, nor Newt Gingrich actively campaigned in Maine. Santorum won 18 percent of the vote, Gingrich 6 percent.
Although he came in a very close second to Romney, Paul had hoped to win for the first time since the nominating contests began in Iowa last month. He has focused on caucuses, where his band of enthusiastic libertarian supporters might be expected to do well.
But in Maine, regional New England neighbor of the state where Romney was governor, the state’s noted independence was not enough to carry the day for Paul. Still, the Texas congressman vows to continue.
"We're not going away," he told supporters when the results in Maine were announced. "We have the message America needs at this particular time."
The results there give Romney a burst of a momentum his campaign hopes will carry him until the next contests – major primaries in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28, then Super Tuesday on March 6 when 10 states will hold elections.
Romney holds clear leads in both Arizona and Michigan (his home state), according to recent polls. He also leads in most national polls pitting the four candidates against each other.
The one exception, announced Saturday, is a Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey showing a Santorum surge. In PPP’s latest national poll, Santorum has 38 percent compared to 23 percent for Romney, 17 percent for Gingrich, and 13 percent for Paul.
Gingrich’s continued presence in the race is a big plus for Romney, PPP finds. If the former House Speaker were to drop out, 58 of his supporters would move to Santorum and just 22 percent to Romney.
“It’s been an amazingly fast ascent to first place for Rick Santorum,” said Dean Debnam, president of PPP. “It’s important to keep in mind though that fewer than half of his voters are firmly committed to him. When he comes under attack in the coming days his lead could evaporate just as quickly as it was created.”
In the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll Saturday, 38 percent voted for Romney, 31 percent for Santorum, 15 percent for Paul, and 12 percent for Gingrich. In a companion presidential straw poll of self-identified conservatives around the country, the results were much closer: 27 percent for Romney, 25 percent for Santorum, 20 percent for Gingrich, and 8 percent for Paul.